“I’m coming back because I wanna show all of you, the whole world […] that when life throws a curved ball at me, I am the type of man that was standing in that batter’s box, I will crowd the plate, I will choke up and I will swing for the fences every single time! Because I will beat this and I will be back so you will see me very, very soon.”
On October 22, 2018, after a short explanation, WWE Superstar Roman Reigns makes this fight announcement, drops the microphone, puts down his Universal Champion title and leaves the hall with tears in his eyes. Suddenly it becomes clear in front of and behind the screens that there are real people behind the entire wrestling show and that the storylines deviate from the protagonists’ normal lives. The curtain falls for the 33-year-old on this day for an indefinite period.
Laeti Joseph Anoa’i, his real name, was born in Pensacola, Florida, in May 1985. He comes from a wrestling family, the so-called Samoan Family, which is one of the most important and largest families in the sport. His uncle is Gataivasa Afa Anoaʻi, who runs the renowned professional wrestling school The Samoan. This paved the way for numerous well-known superstars to enter the ring, including the sinister Undertaker, Bret “Hitman” Hart – Reigns’ idol – or even Billy Kidman. But although Joe, as the 1.91 m tall man is privately called, was surrounded by the wrestling world, he took a different direction and devoted himself to the American national sport of football. He started playing at an early age and was on the team at Pensacola Catholic High School for three years before transferring to Escambia High. With a little research, you find out he was an outstanding player.
The Pensacola New Journal awarded him the title “Defense Player of the year” during this time. That award earned him a place in the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets as a defensive tackle, followed by college and a degree in management. Here he met his future wife Galina Becker, whom he married in December 2014 and who now works as a fitness model. The accolade took place in 2007
Joe Anoa’i got a contract with the NFL team Minnesota Vikings. But after a month he was released – some sources attribute this to an unspecified injury – and signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in August of the same year, which he has to leave after a week. The following year he stood for the Edmonton Eskimos for five games with the number 96 as a defensive tackle on the field. Then his career ended, and by October 2018 the general public thought Anoa’i just wasn’t good enough for professional football.
In one of the most emotional speeches in WWE history, the champion explains that in 2008 he was left with nothing, just become a father, without a job and the football career he was aiming for. It is almost silent in the hall, even the haters fall silent and quickly notice that these words do not come from a perfectly prescribed storyline, but that a life confession is being made here.
In order to gain a foothold, Joe starts wrestling after all, training hard for a year and a half to get away from the defense body and achieve the muscular body of a professional wrestler. He was coached by his father and his uncle, both well-known wrestlers of the 1970s and 1980s, who put the man in his mid-twenties on a good path. But it’s not just the body that needs to be trained and shaped. Reigns learned to present himself, to make tough challenges with the microphone and to offer exciting storytelling. In 2010 he signed a contract with the WWE and stood as a “Leakee” in the ring. However, he lost his Florida Championchip Wrestling debut against Richie Steamboat on September 9, 2010. That year he was involved in a public brawl while drunk and was arrested. There were only negative headlines again in 2016, otherwise he is not guilty of anything publicly.
But the hard work should be rewarded. In the following years Joe became one of the most famous faces in wrestling. When the FCW was renamed WWE NXT, its new name became Roman Reigns.
The NXT debut on October 31, 2012 marked the final start of his brilliant wrestling career. Still unknown, barely noticed or cheered, Reigns was able to convince in this match with his extraordinary footwork – perhaps not that amazing for a former footballer. But after the pin, the commentator predicted: “Roman Reigns is special. Roman Reigns has it. Roman Reigns is gonna be a huge superstar. It’s just simple as that.”
He should be absolutely right about that. Together with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, who soon became his friends in private, he formed the team The Shield. The jump into the main shows was done. His appearances got better, Roman more convincing. He began to give himself up completely to the sport, lived out the storylines, accepted every attack, simulated being hit hard, crashed through the commentary desks, suffered, lay on the ground, was visibly hit by defeats – and was so happy about wins Matches and titles that you just had to be happy with him. It was also not often seen that a superstar had tears of emotion in their eyes after his first solo main event.
He made a big promise to himself and the wrestling fans: to get in the ring every week and put on a great show. He did it. He became the most controversial WWE Superstar, with some accusing him of having more chances for titles than others. But he was still far from the big solo titles when The Shield broke up in 2014 due to a feud between Rollins and his teammates. The eagerly awaited match between Reigns and Rollins had to be canceled. Roman had to undergo emergency surgery after complaining of pain for a long time. The reason for the operation was a herniated viscera and he had a large scar across his stomach from it, which made him struggle with his upper body covered until recently.
Nevertheless, he was voted “Superstar of the Year” in the same year. On January 25, 2015 Reigns won the Royal Rumble, but his former colleague challenged him for the title fight against Brock Lesnar. Later that year, The Big Dog became the WWE World Heavyweight Champion.
Joseph Anoa’i fought, won, lost, despaired and got up again and again. The fans were offered a lot when the new figurehead appeared. He skilfully cast a spell over the masses, whether they loved or hated him – there was nothing in between – the people raged in the sold-out halls and in front of the screens. In 2016, after a somewhat obscure doping affair and a subsequent one-month ban, he was named “Most hated Wrestler of the Year”. Also a title that you have to work out through cleverly constructed storylines. Wrestling is show and Reigns ruled it. Fully representing the tradition he was born with, he carries his Samoan tribal on his arm – something similar is known from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is a kind of cousin of his – has the move “Samoan Drop” and lets his opponents feel a painful running apron dropkick, where he jumps sideways into the ring with a lot of momentum. However, his trademarks have become the Spear and the Superman Punch, with which he commemorates his brother who died in 2017. Matthew Anoa’i was also a wrestler and performed under the name Rosey.
So far, the story of Leati Joseph “Roman Reigns” Anoa’i is quite trivial. A failed football player who devotes himself to wrestling and becomes a superstar. A little American dream that is only tarnished by the fact that it was too bad for the NFL. A wound that will never be closed? But then he feels tired, feels limp and a growing fear gnaws at him, which is confirmed by a blood test and forcibly tears down everything that had been built up so hard and with so much passion over the past few years. When Reigns enters the hall, you notice that something is different, the clothes, his mood, he does not come to fight or to challenge an opponent as hard as he can. It all starts with an apology for not being able to keep the promise to get in the ring every week and put on a great show. The boos and screams slowly fall silent and the Universal Heavyweight Champion Roman Reigns begins a life confession that brings tears to the eyes of many wrestling fans.
“My real name is Joe”, he pauses and you can see how difficult the next words are, “and I’ve been living with Leukemia for 11 years.” Looking down, you hold your breath and feel the immense pressure on your chest, which the wrestler must have felt at that moment. “And unfortunatly it’s back.”
In this emotional speech, it is suddenly revealed that the celebrated superstar has not voluntarily given up his football career and that it is all but the lobbying of a wrestling family for this man to put on a show in the ring every week. Hard work, will and the fight for life got him to the top. That evening nobody knows if and when Joe will return, even if he announces that he will kick cancer in the ass. After all, there are also tears, not in the ring, but on the sidelines, when the former The Shield colleagues hug Reigns and give him consolation. Because behind every feud and every show there are people and friends.
The opponent to be defeated is called CML – chronic myeloid leukemia. It belongs to the so-called myeloproliferative neoplasms, a group of rare and malignant diseases of the bone marrow. The non-hereditary or contagious disease occurs as a result of a genetic change in the blood-producing cells in the bone marrow. In most cases it can be shown that parts of chromosomes 9 and 22 have been translocated. Men are more likely to develop CML than women, and in most cases between the ages of 50 and 60. Joe Anoa’i was 22 when he was diagnosed. By 2001, around half of all those suffering from chronic myeloid leukemia had died. The disease can be repressed through targeted treatment with medication and in most cases without chemotherapy. “Only” up to two new cases per 100,000 inhabitants are diagnosed per year. The symptoms are usually discovered early in the so-called chronic phase, in which the disease goes into remission with the right medication. A cure is currently not possible.
On February 26, 2019, a radiant, visibly happy Roman Reigns made his way to the ring. He hugs fans and is greeted with loud “welcome back” chants. “I miss you!” Are the first words, followed by a speech of thanks for all the encouragement and prayers, for the strength that was given to him. “I’m in remission!” are the words that are drowned in loud cheers. Reigns smiles and it is his greatest victory that he has achieved. Roman Reigns is back home.
Meanwhile, Reigns is back in the ring every week, with the exception of a break in 2020 due to legitimate fear of Covid. He celebrates victories, successes, is the likeable face of the WWE and still has a lot to do. In 2019 he was seen in the movie Hobbs & Shaw, a spin-off of The Fast and the Furious series. The filming was a lot of fun, as he stood at The Rock’s side as its film brother and was allowed to let the hell out of it in the action scenes in Hawaii, as you can see and hear not least on the film itself, but also in interviews. He still regrets that he injured a cameraman in the process. In the Disney series Elena of Avalor, he lends his voice to the character Kizin. He also played a small role in the Netflix series The Wrong Missy in 2020. For his comeback in the same year he received the ESPY Award in the category “Best WWE Moment”. An award that only applies to the wrestler Roman Reigns, but above all to the person behind it, who has shown courage to deal openly with his illness and has successfully put it in its place once again.
Since that dark day in October 2018 he has been open about his cancer and supports various campaigns to educate people about CML, visits children with cancer and gives courage to all those who have to fight this difficult fight.
It’s not about pity, Reigns never was about that. But the WWE Champion made public a fight, a disease and a difficult road many people have to walk every day, drawing attention to a relatively unknown disease. The symbolization of falling and getting up, the defensive tackle that does not defend the yards, but his own life – which can break at any time. He can see the scripted opponents in the ring, assess them, if they take a run-up, he can already defend, the moves have been agreed, the winner is certain. But his real enemy lives invisibly within him and is part of Roman Reigns. You have to admire the physical performance this man produces in the ring when he defends his title, prevails against 29 opponents in the Royal Rumble, perseveres in locked cages to make his opponent say “I quit!” bring to. It will hopefully be a very long time before Laeti Joseph Anoa’i has to say these words to life, in which he can inspire fans and haters and see his children grow up. Until then it will be said again and again:
“The Big Dog is back!”